Why Punjab needs to decide its farmers’ policy quickly | Opinion
Punjab chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh is known for his brand of decisive leadership. Be it the controversial annulment of all river-water agreements with neighbouring states in 2004 during his first term, the crackdown on the militant-gangster nexus or clipping the wings of dissenting minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, he has rarely shied away from making tough decisions.
Yet, his government’s response to the draft farmers’ policy prepared by the Punjab State Farmers and Farm Workers Commission (PSFFWC) appears to be bordering on ambivalence. The commission headed by Bharat Krishak Samaj chairman Ajay Vir Jakhar has suggested a slew of significant initiatives and interventions – no free power to farmers owning more than four hectares of land, use direct benefit transfer for power subsidy, make area-specific crop production plans, ban paddy cultivation on village common lands et al.
Missing sense of urgency
All of these are aimed at addressing the agrarian crisis and continuous groundwater depletion – the two biggest challenges facing the state. But the sense of urgency is lacking. Though it was unveiled more than a year ago, there is no clarity on when exactly the draft policy was submitted to the state government as no one in the commission or the state government wants to talk about this.
The recommendations were discussed, for the first time and that too “informally”, by the state cabinet last Tuesday where Amarinder decided to set up a cabinet sub-committee for a detailed study because of the “political implications” of some of its provisions. Though the sub-committee is yet to be notified, such panels are not known to do things quickly.
Noted farm economist Dr SS Johl says the commission’s recommendations must be considered on priority. “Governments need to shun the practice of looking at their vote banks before making decisions on critical matters. We all know how much political will they show on such issues,” he says, citing the decision to advance sowing of paddy by one week in the middle of elections and its impact on groundwater.
Staring at a parched future
Anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that Punjab is hurtling towards ‘desertification’ with groundwater extraction far exceeding the replenishment. The state has the highest rate of overexploitation of groundwater resources in the country at 149%.
The state, according to a report prepared by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), will be rendered a desert in 25 years if the ground water exploitation continues at the current rate.
Also, the wells in Punjab have reported the highest percentage decline in groundwater levels. CGWB’s latest assessment survey, in which it compared pre-monsoon water level data with the decadal average water level, indicated that over 84% of the 245 wells it observed have shown a decline, the highest among the states, followed by Uttar Pradesh at 83%. All of these are worrisome pointers.
Agriculture experts blame the free power, coupled with the failure of successive governments to wean the farmers away from water-guzzling paddy cultivation, for indiscriminate use of groundwater. Over 14 lakh agriculture tube wells get free, unmetered power supply.
This is a double whammy. As the groundwater level is going down, farmers are consuming more and more electricity to draw water. The decrease of 15% in annual rainfall in the last decade and availability of surface water from rivers have only made things worse. This year, the debt-laden government has budgeted over Rs 8,969 crore for free power supply to agriculture pump sets.
Time for piecemeal efforts gone
The commission’s suggestion to withdraw the free power facility from medium and large farmers, who own 34% of the operational landholdings, is a tricky issue without doubt, given the sway of the farming community in the state.
Not many in the ruling dispensation find it politically palatable with the bypolls in at least half-a-dozen assembly constituencies expected in the coming one year.
The two-time chief minister, who did not flinch before launching the farm debt waiver scheme, albeit a watered-down one, despite the severe fund crunch to fulfil his poll promise, has been making the right noises. Last year, he appealed to big farmers to voluntarily give up their power subsidy to help the government in its efforts check water depletion. The response is nothing to write home about, though.
On Tuesday, Congress and Akali Dal MLAs also took digs at each other in the Punjab assembly over using free power to run tubewells. Though no quick-fixes should be expected, this is not the time for piecemeal efforts or tiptoeing around these recommendations. The state government needs to act quickly and address the deepening distress in rural areas before it is too late.